Multiple myeloma, also known as myeloma, is a type of bone marrow cancer.
Bone marrow is the spongy tissue found at the centre of some bones. It produces the body's blood cells. Multiple myeloma affects the plasma cells (a type of blood cell) inside the bone marrow.
Myeloma does not usually take the form of a lump or tumour. Instead, the myeloma cells divide and expand within the bone marrow, damaging the bones and affecting the production of healthy blood cells.
Myeloma often affects many places in the body, which is why it is called multiple myeloma. Commonly affected areas include the spine, skull, pelvis and ribs.
Signs and symptoms
In the early stages, myeloma may not cause any symptoms. It's often only suspected or diagnosed after a routine blood or urine test.
However, myeloma will eventually cause a wide range of problems, including:
a persistent dull ache or specific areas of tenderness in your bones
weak bones that break (fracture) easily
tiredness, weakness and shortness of breath (caused by anaemia)
less commonly, bruising and unusual bleeding – such as frequentnosebleeds, bleeding gums and heavy periods
When to see your GP
See your GP if you have any of the above symptoms. While they're unlikely to be caused by cancer, it's best to get a proper diagnosis.
Your GP will examine you to check for bone tenderness, bleeding, signs of infection, and any other symptoms that suggest you may have myeloma.
They may also arrange blood and urine tests that can detect abnormal proteins produced by myeloma cells.
If myeloma is suspected, you will be referred to a consultant haematologist (a specialist in blood conditions) for further tests and treatment.
Who is affected?
Multiple myeloma is an uncommon type of cancer, with around 4,800 new cases diagnosed each year in the UK.
It's not known exactly what causes the condition, although it's more common in:
people with monoclonal gammopathy of unknown significance (MGUS) – an excess number of protein molecules called immunoglobulins in your blood
adults over 60 – most cases are diagnosed at around the age of 70, and cases affecting people under the age of 40 are rare
black people – multiple myeloma is about twice as common in black populations compared with white and Asian populations
How multiple myeloma is treated
There is currently no cure for multiple myeloma, but treatment can often help control it for several years.
Treatment will often involve:
a combination of anti-myeloma medications to destroy the myeloma cells
medicines and procedures to prevent and treat problems caused by myeloma, such as bone pain, fractures and anaemia
anti-myeloma medicines to control the cancer when it comes back (relapses)
As part of your treatment, you may be asked if you want to take part in a clinical trial to help researchers develop better treatments for multiple myeloma.
The outlook for multiple myeloma is improving all the time, but the condition still can't be completely cured. Research is ongoing to try to find new and better treatments.
As with other types of cancer, the outlook depends on things such as your age and general health. Some people may live less than a year, while others may live 20 years or more.
Overall, about 77 in every 100 people will live at least a year, 47 in every 100 will live at least five years, and 33 in every 100 will live at least 10 years.
If you've been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, you may find it useful to contact a local or national support group, such as Myeloma UK.
Support groups can offer more information and advice. They can also often put you in touch with other people in a similar situation so you can share advice and talk about your experiences.
The Myeloma UK website has more information about how they can help you and finding a local support group.
Symptoms of multiple myeloma
In the early stages, multiple myeloma may not cause any symptoms or complications, and may only be diagnosed after a routine blood or urine test.
However, it will eventually cause a wide range of problems, some of which are outlined below.
Multiple myeloma can cause pain in affected bones, most often the back, ribs or hips. The pain is frequently a persistent dull ache, which may be made worse by movement.
Bone fractures and spinal cord compression
Multiple myeloma can weaken the bones and make them more likely to break (fracture). The spine and ribs are most often affected.
Fractures of the spine can cause the sections of the spine to collapse, leading to pain and occasionally compression of the spinal cord (the main column of nerves running down the back).
Compression of the spinal cord can cause pins and needles, numbness and weakness in the legs and feet, and sometimes problems controlling your bladder and bowels.
Multiple myeloma can affect the production of blood cells in our bone marrow, which can lead to a lack of red blood cells (anaemia). This can also occur as a side effect of myeloma treatment.
If you have anaemia, you may feel very tired, weak and breathless.
People with multiple myeloma are particularly vulnerable to infection because the condition interferes with the immune system (the body's natural defence against infection and illness).
You may find you get infections frequently and that they last for a long time.
Raised calcium levels in the blood
A high level of calcium in the blood (hypercalcaemia) can develop in people with multiple myeloma because too much calcium is released from affected bones into the bloodstream.
Symptoms of hypercalcaemia can include extreme thirst, feeling sick, needing to urinate frequently, constipation, confusion and drowsiness.
Bruising and unusual bleeding (haemorrhage) – such as frequentnosebleeds, bleeding gums and heavy periods – sometimes occurs in multiple myeloma because the cancer cells in your bone marrow can stop blood clotting cells called platelets being made.
In some people, multiple myeloma can cause the blood to become thicker than normal. This is known as hyperviscosity, which can cause problems such as blurred vision, headaches, dizziness, bleeding from the gums or nose, and shortness of breath.
Kidney damage can occur in people with multiple myeloma for several reasons. Abnormal proteins produced by the cancer cells can damage the kidneys, as can other complications, such as hypercalcaemia. Some medications used to treat multiple myeloma can also cause kidney damage.
Eventually, the kidneys may stop working properly. This is known as kidney or renal impairment, or kidney or renal failure. Signs of kidney failure can include:
weight loss and poor appetite
swollen ankles, feet or hands
tiredness and a lack of energy
shortness of breath
When to seek medical advice
You should see your GP if you have symptoms of multiple myeloma. While they're unlikely to be caused by cancer, it's best to be sure by getting a proper diagnosis.
You should seek immediate medical help if you have symptoms of spinal cord compression, hypercalcaemia or kidney failure, as these are medical emergencies that need to be investigated and treated as soon as possible.
Causes of multiple myeloma
In multiple myeloma, cells inside the bone marrow called plasma cells become cancerous.
Bone marrow is the spongy tissue found at the centre of some bones. It produces the body's blood cells.
Plasma cells are normally produced in a controlled way. In cases of multiple myeloma, large numbers of abnormal plasma cells are produced. These fill up the bone marrow and interfere with the production of other cells, such as red and white blood cells.
The exact reason why this happens is unknown, but multiple myeloma is closely associated with a condition called monoclonal gammopathy of unknown significance (MGUS), and there are certain things that can increase your risk of developing it.
Monoclonal gammopathy of unknown significance (MGUS)
In almost all cases, multiple myeloma occurs in someone who previously had MGUS.
MGUS is the name for having an excess number of protein molecules called immunoglobulins in your blood. This does not cause any symptoms and treatment is not required.
However, every year around 1 in every 100 people with MGUS go on to develop multiple myeloma. There is no known way to delay or prevent this, so ongoing outpatient tests to check for cancer will usually be recommended if you have MGUS.
As well as MGUS, certain things can increase your risk of developing multiple myeloma, including:
age – your risk of developing multiple myeloma increases as you get older; most cases are diagnosed at around the age of 70, and cases affecting people under 40 are rare
gender – men are more likely to develop multiple myeloma than women
ethnicity – multiple myeloma is about twice as common in black populations compared with white and Asian populations
It has also been suggested that having a family history of MGUS or multiple myeloma, having reduced immunity (for example, because of medication or HIV), being overweight or obese, and being exposed to radiation or certain chemicals may increase your risk of multiple myeloma. However, a link between these factors and the condition is less clear.
Diagnosing multiple myeloma
Multiple myeloma can be difficult to diagnose because it's an uncommon type of cancer that initially has few or no symptoms.
Your GP will examine you and ask about your symptoms, medical history and overall health. During the examination, your GP will look for things such as bleeding, signs of infection and specific areas of bone tenderness.
You may need urine and blood tests to check for certain types of antibodies and proteins (immunoglobulins).
If multiple myeloma is suspected, you will be referred to a haematologist (a doctor who specialises in conditions affecting the blood) for further tests and scans.
A number of blood tests are used to help diagnose multiple myeloma, and they may need to be repeated to monitor the condition.
These may include:
erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) or plasma viscosity (PV) – if you have multiple myeloma, your ESR or PV will usually be raised
tests to measure the type and number of abnormal antibodies produced by the cancerous plasma cells
a full blood count (FBC) to check levels of different types of blood cells – your doctor will be looking for a low number of red blood cells and platelets
liver and kidney function
blood calcium level
A urine sample will be checked for the abnormal proteins produced by the cancerous plasma cells. The abnormal proteins are known as monoclonal light chains, or Bence Jones protein.
These proteins can damage your kidneys as they pass through them from your blood to your urine. You may be asked to collect your urine over a 24-hour period. This will be used to check the quantity of proteins being produced and how well your kidneys are working.
X-rays and other scans
You will have X-rays taken of your long bones (arms and legs), skull, spine and pelvis to look for any damage.
Other scans, such as computerised tomography (CT) scans andmagnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, may also be carried out.
Bone marrow biopsy
A bone marrow biopsy is usually needed to confirm multiple myeloma. A needle will be used to take a small sample of bone marrow from one of your bones, usually the pelvis. A sample of bone may also be removed.
This is carried out using a local anaesthetic (the area where the needle is inserted is numbed).
The sample of bone marrow and bone will be used to check for cancerous plasma cells.