The goals of testing for multiple myeloma are to diagnose the condition, determine its severity and spread, monitor its progress, detect complications as they arise, and monitor the effectiveness of treatment. There is no one single test that can diagnose multiple myeloma. Typically, the disease is diagnosed using a combination of patient’s signs and symptoms, medical history, physical examination, laboratory tests, and/or imaging tests.
Multiple myeloma may first be detected during routine wellness testing, showing up as an abnormal total protein level, an elevated calcium level, a low white or red blood cell count, and/or moderate to large amounts of protein in the urine. Findings such as these may raise suspicions but are not diagnostic as similar abnormalities may be seen with a variety of other conditions. They simply indicate the need for further testing.
Tests used as a follow-up to abnormal routine tests and to help diagnose the disease may include one or more of the following:
- Protein and Immunofixation Electrophoresis. These tests are used to diagnose and monitor multiple myeloma. Protein electrophoresis separates the proteins in a blood or urine sample into several groups based on their electrical charge and size. In most patients with multiple myeloma, large amounts of an abnormal immunoglobulin protein (M-protein) will show up as a large peak on the electrophoresis graph. The amount of normal immunoglobulins in the sample may be visibly decreased as well. Usually, both a blood and a urine sample will be tested during the diagnosis of multiple myeloma because some proteins, such as the Bence Jones proteins (free light chains), may not show up in significant quantities in blood samples, while those with only intact immunoglobulins may not have the abnormal protein in urine. Immunofixation electrophoresis is done to identify the specific type of protein that is being produced by the malignant plasma cells. The amount of protein produced may vary throughout the course of the disease, but the type will remain the same.
- Bence Jones protein (free light chains) can be detected in the urine of some patients with multiple myeloma. The sample tested is usually a 24-hour urine because the total amount of Bence Jones protein in 24 hours is related to the amount of tumor that is present. Either the kappa or lambda light chains (but not both in the same patient) may be measured to help diagnose multiple myeloma and monitor the effectiveness of treatment.
- Serum free light chains (FLC). This test measures the amount of free light chains in the blood. Even in normal circumstances (and for unknown reasons), plasma cells produce an excess of light chains compared to heavy chains and there is usually a small amount of light chains that do not become incorporated into intact immunoglobulins. These remain as free light chains and are released into the bloodstream. Most patients with multiple myeloma produce increased amounts of either kappa or lambda free light chains, which can be measured in blood. Consequently, the ratio of kappa to lambda light chains is abnormal in most patients and is a sensitive indicator for this disease. This test may be used to monitor progression and/or treatment.
- Quantitative Immunoglobulins. Each of these tests measures amounts of a different type of immunoglobulin. The multiple myeloma protein will be an IgG, IgA or, rarely, an IgD or IgE immunoglobulin. Patients with a monoclonal IgM immunoglobulin may have a related but different disease (Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia). IgG, IgA, and IgM may be ordered to help diagnose multiple myeloma and to monitor the course of the disease and its effect on the production of normal immunoglobulins.
- Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy. Multiple myeloma is a disease of the bone marrow. Patients usually require a bone marrow evaluation to confirm the diagnosis, evaluate how many malignant plasma cells are present in the marrow, and to what degree they have affected the production of normal WBCs, RBCs, and platelets.
Other Laboratory Tests
Other tests that may be done as part of an initial diagnostic workup, to monitor the progress of the disease, and to help detect and address complications include:
- Comprehensive Metabolic Panel (CMP), a group of tests used to evaluate kidney and other organ function, electrolyte status, and to determine calcium and total protein levels.
- Complete Blood Count (CBC), counts and evaluates WBCs, RBCs, and platelets and determines the extent of anemia (measures hemoglobin).
- Uric acid levels may be elevated as a complication of multiple myeloma.
- Beta2-microglobulin, a protein on the cell surface of myeloma and other cells; increased levels may indicate a poorer prognosis, but this protein may also be elevated in other diseases.
- Serum viscosity, a measure of how "thick" the fluid portion of the blood is; when levels of the abnormal protein become very high, serum viscosity may increase and cause symptoms.
- X-ray, ordered to help diagnose, stage, and monitor; may detect holes in bones, extent of bone damage, and the number and size of tumors in the bones.
- MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), may be more sensitive than X-ray for evaluating bone destruction.
- CT (Computed tomography), may be used to evaluate bone tumors.