Symptoms, Side effects and Complications
Symptoms are changes in normal function or feeling that indicate the presence of disease. Multiple myeloma symptoms vary by patient, with the early stages of multiple myeloma often presenting no visible symptoms or signs. When present, the symptoms of multiple myeloma may be vague or similar to those of other conditions. If your doctor suspects you may have multiple myeloma, he or she may run a number of different urine or blood tests to confirm the diagnosis.
Complications of multiple myeloma are health problems that stem from the disease’s effect on the body as well as its symptoms. As multiple myeloma cells grow in excess, they disrupt normal cell production, which can result in a range of complications, particularly in the bones, blood, and kidneys.
Side effects are the undesired effects of various drugs and procedures that people with multiple myeloma undergo to treat their disease. Let your healthcare team know about any multiple myeloma symptoms, complications, or side effects you experience; there are many options available to help manage them.
Learn more about managing symptoms, complications, and side effects:
A common characteristic of multiple myeloma is low blood cell count. This happens due to the interference of cancerous cells in the production of normal blood cells. Low blood cell count contributes to a wide range of multiple myeloma complications:
- Low blood count of the red blood cells usually results in anemia.
- Low blood count of the white blood cells impairs the immune system.
- A reduction in blood platelets (thrombocytopenia) can lead to blood clotting issues like increased bleeding.
Types of blood cell count
|Erythrocytes (RBCs)||Number of red blood cells in the blood. Red blood cells bring oxygen from the lungs to the various tissues in the body and carry carbon dioxide back to the lungs. Low numbers of red blood cells or low hemoglobin or hematocrit indicate anemia, which can cause physical and mental fatigue||Female 4.1-5.1 x 1012/L
Male 4.5-5.3 x 1012/L
|Hemoglobin (Hb)||Oxygen-carrying substance in red blood cells||Female 12 - 16 g/dL
Male 13 - 18 g/dL
|Hematocrit (HCT)||Percentage of red blood cells in the blood||Female 36 - 46%
Male 37 - 49%
|Leukocytes (WBCs)||Number of white blood cells in the blood; counts or percentages of the individuals types of blood cells are also provided. White blood cells help fight infection and remove harmful substances from the body. A low number of white cells can increase the possibility of infection||Total 3.5 - 10.5 x 109/L
Neutrophils 1.7 - 7.0
Monocytes 0.3 - 0.9
Basophils 0.0 - 0.3
Eosinophils 0.05 - 0.5
|Platelets||Number of platelets in the blood. Because platelets help blood to clot, low counts can lead to excessive bleeding||150 - 450 x 109/L|
|*Normal ranges may vary.|
In people with multiple myeloma, the growing number of cancerous cells can interfere with the production of all types of blood cells. Decreased production of red blood cells can result in a complication called anemia. Certain multiple myeloma treatments can contribute to anemia as well.
Anemia is typically defined as an abnormally low hemoglobin (Hb) level. Hemoglobin, a substance found within red blood cells, carries oxygen from the lungs to the tissues in the body. Normal hemoglobin levels are:
- 12 to 16 g/dL for women
- 14 to 18 g/dL for men
|Severity of Anemia||Hemoglobin Level (g/dL)|
|Mild||10 or more|
|Life-Threatening||Less than 6.5|
Anemia can cause symptoms such as weakness, fatigue, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Over 60% of multiple myeloma patients have anemia at the time they are diagnosed, and most remaining patients become anemic during the course of their disease.
A number of supportive therapies—including medications called red blood cell growth factors or supplementation with iron, folate, or vitamin B12—may be used to treat anemia in people with multiple myeloma. For people with severe anemia, blood transfusions may be needed.
Although multiple myeloma actually leads to an increased level of antibodies, the antibodies produced by multiple myeloma cells are ineffective—and they crowd out the healthy cells that produce functional, disease-fighting antibodies. By impairing the immune system in this way, multiple myeloma reduces the body’s ability to prevent or fight off infections. Certain multiple myeloma therapies can further reduce white blood cell levels, contributing to reduced immune function.
As a result of this impaired immune function, people with multiple myeloma are more susceptible to frequent infections. In fact, they are about 15 times more likely to get an infection than people without multiple myeloma.
Preventive steps can be taken to reduce your risk of infection:
- Wash your hands.
- Cook food thoroughly.
- Wash fruits and vegetables.
- Avoid contact with people who show signs of being sick.
- Protect the skin from scrapes and cuts.
- Keep current with flu and pneumonia vaccines.
To further reduce your risk of infection, your doctor may use medications such as intravenous antibody therapy (immunoglobulin IgG), antifungal medications, colony-stimulating factors, and preventive shingles treatments or antibiotics.
Tell your doctor right away if you have any symptoms of infection, such as a fever over 100.5°F, chills or sweating, muscle aches, coughing, sore throat, pain/redness at the site of an open cut, fatigue, or diarrhea. Common treatments for infection in multiple myeloma patients include white blood cell growth factors, antibiotics, and antifungal medications.
Multiple myeloma leads to bone loss in two ways. First, multiple myeloma cells gather to form masses in the bone marrow that may disrupt the normal structure of the surrounding bone. Second, multiple myeloma cells secrete substances that interfere with the normal process of bone repair and growth.
About 85% of people with multiple myeloma have some type of bone damage (osteolytic lesions) or loss (osteoporosis). The most commonly affected areas are the spine, pelvis, and rib cage.
With weakened bones, people with multiple myeloma often experience bone pain and have an increased risk for fracture. They are also at risk for spinal cord compression, a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment in order to avoid long-term damage.
Additionally, bone destruction can cause an increased level of calcium in the bloodstream, a condition called hypercalcemia, which can be a serious problem if not treated immediately.
Common ways to manage bone damage in people with multiple myeloma include supplementation with calcium and vitamin D, exercise, bisphosphonates and other medications, orthopedic interventions, and low-dose radiation therapy.
In people with multiple myeloma, excess M protein and calcium in the blood overwork the kidneys as they filter blood. As a result, the kidneys may fail to function normally. If the impaired kidney function is so severe that the kidneys are unable to sufficiently do their job of filtering metabolic waste from the blood, it results in a complication called kidney failure.
More than half of people with multiple myeloma will experience a decrease in their kidney (or “renal”) function at some point in the course of their disease.
A decrease in the amount of urine is one sign of kidney problems, so let your doctor know if you experience any changes in urination. If your doctor suspects impaired kidney function, he or she will likely perform blood tests to detect certain proteins (such as creatinine) that may indicate reduced kidney function.
Staying well hydrated is one way to manage impaired kidney function. Your doctor may also advise you to avoid anti-inflammatory drugs (such as Advil, Motrin, and Aleve). Depending on the severity of your impaired kidney function, you may undergo plasmapheresis or dialysis.
Bone destruction in people with multiple myeloma can release excess calcium into the bloodstream, resulting in a condition known as hypercalcemia.
When severe, hypercalcemia can result in coma or cardiac arrest, so it’s very important to identify and treat it quickly. Let your doctor know right away if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Loss of appetite
- Increased thirst
- Increased urination
- Difficulty in thinking or confusion
- Nausea and vomiting
Peripheral neuropathy, or the symptoms that arise from peripheral nerve damage, is a common side effect of multiple myeloma and certain treatments.
The experience of peripheral neuropathy varies from person to person, but can be described as pain, tingling (“pins and needles” sensation), burning, numbness, less sensation, inability or struggle to pick up small objects, trembling, tripping or stumbling when walking, or sensitivity to temperature. It often affects the extremities first, starting in the toes or fingers and moving inward to the ankles or wrists.
The peripheral nervous system is the network of nerves with cell bodies that sit outside the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain and spinal cord. Compared to the brain and spinal cord, the peripheral nervous system is relatively unprotected; it is exposed to anything that circulates in the blood, such as M proteins (created by multiple myeloma cells) and chemotherapy. This exposure can interfere with the nerves, preventing proper signaling.
If you experience peripheral neuropathy, your doctor will determine the best way to manage it based on the underlying cause—whether that is multiple myeloma itself, a particular treatment, or an unrelated condition, such as diabetes.
To help cope with peripheral neuropathy, try to avoid things that make it worse, like extreme (hot or cold) temperatures or tight-fitting clothing or shoes. Avoid alcohol and use handrails, a walker, or a cane to help you maintain your balance when walking. Foot massages can be helpful, as can physical or occupational therapy.
Many medications for multiple myeloma can cause gastrointestinal side effects, including constipation, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. While some people find it embarrassing to discuss these problems, rest assured that your doctors and nurses are used to discussing them and can often easily treat them.
Constipation occurs when bowel movements are difficult and infrequent (less than three per week). Stools may be dry, hard, and painful.
Your doctor may prescribe a stool softener or laxative to help relieve constipation. Additionally, a diet high in fiber with plenty of bran-based cereals, fruits, vegetables, lentils, and whole grains can help. Drinking plenty of water is important, and hot drinks like coffee or tea can help stimulate a bowel movement. Gentle exercise, such as walking or swimming, can also be helpful.
Diarrhea is defined as frequent (more than three per day) loose or watery stools.
If you experience severe diarrhea (more than six loose stools per day for two days), let your doctor know right away. He or she will recommend an over-the-counter or a prescription antidiarrheal medication and may advise you to take a fiber supplement. It’s important to stay hydrated when experiencing diarrhea, so drink plenty of water and avoid coffee and alcohol. Eating small, light meals slowly throughout the day can be helpful.
Nausea and vomiting
Nausea is the feeling of being sick to your stomach or queasy with an urge to vomit, and vomiting is actually expelling stomach contents. Dry heaving is the sensation of vomiting without actually throwing up. These are all commonly experienced by people with multiple myeloma, due to the disease itself or to certain treatments.
Drugs called antiemetics are used to treat nausea and vomiting. Depending on the multiple myeloma treatment you’re receiving, your doctor may even prescribe an antiemetic drug to stop nausea and vomiting before it starts. Drinking lots of fluids and eating small meals throughout the day can also help manage nausea and vomiting.
People with multiple myeloma are at an increased risk of developing blood clots, as blood clots can be caused by certain multiple myeloma medications. People who are newly diagnosed or who have had blood clots in the past are at particularly high risk. Other risk factors for blood clots include older age, family history, other medical conditions, obesity, and long periods of sitting or lying still.
Your doctor will assess your risk of developing blood clots and may prescribe blood thinners to reduce the risk. Aspirin is recommended to most patients, while low-molecular-weight heparin is prescribed to those at greater risk. In some cases, additional medications may be recommended as well. You can also help prevent blood clots by avoiding long periods of inactivity.