The Risk Factors and Common Symptoms of Multiple Myeloma

Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells found in bone marrow. Under normal circumstances, these cells produce antibodies in response to infection. However, multiple myeloma causes them to produce excessive amounts of a protein known as immunoglobulin. This excess accumulates in the body over time and damages organs. In their abnormal state, these cells also interfere with normal blood cells and prompt other cells to break down otherwise healthy bone to create weak spots.

Like most cancers, an early diagnosis is important. By spotting some of the signs and symptoms, it’s possible to see a doctor and get a diagnosis earlier. Knowing if you are at an elevated risk can also help with early diagnosis. Take this opportunity to learn more about multiple myeloma and the potential symptoms you may see and discover. 

Causes and Risk Factors

Experts are still uncertain of what causes multiple myeloma. However, certain factors have been found to correlate with a higher likelihood of developing the disease. In general, men over the age of 65 who are of African-American descent and are overweight or obese are more likely to develop multiple myeloma. The presence of other plasma cell diseases, such as solitary plasmacytoma or monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS), may indicate a higher propensity to develop the blood cancer. As with many conditions, a family history of multiple myeloma also increases the risk of having it. Another risk factor is exposure to radiation, which can come from certain occupations.

Signs and Symptoms of Multiple Myeloma

In some cases, patients won't exhibit any symptoms at all. However, others will potentially display some of the following problems: 

  • Bone issues - People with multiple myeloma may experience bone pain. While this may occur anywhere in the body, it's most commonly experienced in the hips, back and head. Weak, brittle bones are another common symptom and may result in breaks even from minor injuries or impacts.
  • Abnormal Blood Counts - It's common to see low numbers of red and white blood cells and platelets in myeloma. This can cause its own set of symptoms such as anemia, leukopenia and thrombocytopenia. Anemia occurs then there aren't enough red blood cells, resulting in poor oxygenation and dizziness, trouble breathing and fatigue. Leukopenia is caused by a lack of white blood cells and results in frequent or severe infections. Thrombocytopenia occurs with deficient platelets resulting in excessive bleeding and bruising from even minor injuries.
  • Hypercalcemia - Too much calcium in the blood can lead to a host of symptoms. These include excessive thirst and urination, kidney disorders, abdominal discomfort, low appetite, fatigue, constipation and dehydration. High enough levels can lead to coma.
  • Neurological Problems - Weakened bones can crumble and compress the spinal cord or nerves. This typically results in numbness and weakness in the extremities and sudden back pain. These issues must be addressed immediately or paralysis could result. Myeloma can also cause nerve damage resulting in peripheral neuropathy.
  • Thickened Blood - The excessive amounts of abnormal proteins can make blood overly thick and hinder circulation to the brain. This usually causes stroke-like symptoms, dizziness and confusion. This must be addressed right away.
  • Kidney Trouble - The abnormal proteins caused by multiple myeloma can also cause kidney damage. It doesn't usually cause symptoms at first, but a kidney panel will reveal early signs of damage. As the organs begin to fail, they're unable to offload excess water, metabolic waste, salt and potassium. This is often heralded by trouble breathing, edema, itchiness and physical weakness.
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