Although multiple myeloma is a relatively rare type of cancer, worldwide incidence rates are rising, most noticeably in Australia, New Zealand, Western Europe, and the United States.

Multiple myeloma is a type of cancer that disrupts the production of plasma cells in your bone marrow. Plasma cells make antibodies, which are an important part of your body’s immune system.

In addition to weakening the body’s ability to fight infections, myeloma can lead to other chronic health issues, such as fewer blood cells, impaired kidney function, and weakened bones.

Even though multiple myeloma is a relatively rare type of cancer, it’s becoming more commonly diagnosed worldwide. According to a 2021 study, incidence rates have increased since 1990 by 126% globally and by more than 40% in the United States.

This article reviews what we know about multiple myeloma, including how common it is, what causes it, and whether you can lower your risk of developing this disease.

Fast facts about multiple myeloma

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Multiple myeloma diagnoses are increasing around the world. A 2020 study found that rates are rising most noticeably in Australia, New Zealand, Western Europe, and the United States, where the disease is most common.

Regions with the lowest incidence are western Africa, Melanesia, and Southeastern Asia.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), race and sex are risk factors for developing multiple myeloma. People assigned male at birth are more likely to develop the disease than those assigned female at birth. In the United States, Black Americans are more likely to develop myeloma than white Americans.

Here are the number of new cases per 100,000 people by race and sex in the United States:

RacePrevalence per 100,000 people
All racesMale: 8.7. Female: 5.8
HispanicMale: 8.0. Female: 5.7
American Indian/Alaska NativeMale: 7.9. Female: 6.2
Asian/Pacific IslanderMale: 5.0. Female: 3.2
BlackMale: 16.8. Female: 12.8
whiteMale: 8.1. Female: 5.0

Language matters

You’ll notice that the language used to share statistics in the table above and throughout the article is pretty binary. Although we typically avoid language like this, specificity is key when reporting on research participants and clinical findings. Unfortunately, the statistics referenced in the above table didn’t include data on participants who were transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.

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Although the reason behind the worldwide rising incidence rates of multiple myeloma remains unclear, researchers theorize that it might be related to improvements in early recognition and diagnosis, as well as the rise of myeloma-related risk factors.

A 2020 study found that incidence rates are predominantly rising in developed countries, which have greater access to economic resources, quality healthcare, and patient education, compared with developing countries. In other words, developed countries have a better ability to diagnose multiple myeloma within the population.

A 2022 study found that increased incidences of multiple myeloma were associated with “higher human development index and gross domestic products, prevalence of physical inactivity, overweight, obesity, and diabetes.” The implication being that people living in developed countries may have more risk factors for multiple myeloma.

Doctors still aren’t entirely sure what causes multiple myeloma. Because this cancer is relatively rare, it’s difficult for researchers to pinpoint which underlying causes lead to its development.

But researchers have identified risk factors associated with the disease. These include:

Signs and symptoms of myeloma include:

  • bone issues
    • bone pain
    • bone weakness
    • fractures
  • spinal cord compression
    • severe back pain
    • muscle weakness or numbness in your legs
  • anemia, leukopenia, or thrombocytopenia (due to fewer red blood cells, fewer white blood cells, and platelets)
    • weakness
    • shortness of breath
    • dizziness
    • lower resistance to infections such as pneumonia
    • excessive bleeding with minor scrapes or bruises
  • hypercalcemia (high levels of calcium in your blood)
    • extreme thirst
    • constant urge to pee
    • dehydration
    • stomach pain
    • loss of appetite
    • fatigue or weakness
  • hyperviscosity (thickening of the blood, which can slow blood flow to the brain)
    • confusion
    • seizures
    • stroke symptoms
  • impaired kidney function (inability to drain excess salt, fluid, and waste products)
    • weakness
    • shortness of breath
    • itching
    • leg swelling

Multiple myeloma is a rare type of cancer that’s becoming more prevalent in the world, particularly in developed countries such as Australia, Western Europe, and the United States.

Because of how rare this disease is, little is known about which risk factors play a role in developing multiple myeloma. But there are noticeable trends in the prevalence of the disease when it comes to sex and race.

Myeloma is more prevalent in people assigned male at birth. It’s also twice as common in Black Americans than in white Americans.

As with any type of cancer, prevention and early diagnosis is key. If you’ve been experiencing any of the symptoms of myeloma or are concerned about your risk of developing this condition, consider reaching out to a doctor.