By Dr. Mercola
Can a roller-coaster ride hasten the passage of kidney stones? While the pairing of an agonizingly painful health condition with an amusement ride may seem too outlandish to believe, research out of Michigan State University (MSU) has been recognized with a 2018 Ig® Nobel Prize for showing that it's possible.1
Keep in mind the Ig (for ignoble) is a spoof of the real Nobel Prize. Since 1991, it has been awarded every fall at a ceremony held at Harvard University. Organized by the scientific humor magazine The Annals of Improbable Research, the Ig acknowledges 10 unusual or trivial scientific research projects that "[make] people laugh and then think."2
Lest you assume human clinical trials were used to demonstrate the potential of roller coasters to facilitate the passing of kidney stones, you should know the outcomes were based only on anecdotal evidence and experiments with a silicon model.
Now that the Ig award has shed some light on an unusual treatment for kidney stones, let's take a closer look at how these stones form and what you can do more practically to prevent and treat them.
Spoof Nobel Prize Awarded for Using Roller Coasters to Bust up Kidney Stones
As discussed in the featured video, researchers from MSU teamed up to prove that fast-paced, looping roller coaster rides can be useful to help dislodge kidney stones. Their results, published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association in 2016,3 validate the effectiveness of a roller-coaster ride to ease the passage of small kidney stones through a silicon urinary tract.
In a pilot study, Dr. David Wartinger, Professor Emeritus in MSU's department of osteopathic surgical specialties, used a backpack to transport a validated, synthetic 3D model of a hollow kidney on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The model, which was held at kidney level, contained urine and a number of kidney stones.
He analyzed 20 rides using variables such as kidney stone volume, the silicone model's placement on the roller coaster and the frequency of simulated stone passage. After partnering with Dr. Marc Mitchell, urologist with The Doctors Clinic in Poulsbo, Washington, Wartinger went on to analyze 60 roller coaster rides involving various kidney models.
They discovered sitting in the back of the coaster yielded the best passage rates, with 23 of 36 stones being successfully expelled. They also concluded stones located in the upper chamber of the kidney showed a 100 percent passage rate. About their research, Wartinger said:4
"In all, we used 174 kidney stones of varying shapes, sizes and weights to see if each model worked on the same ride and on two other roller coasters. Big Thunder Mountain was the only one that worked. We tried Space Mountain and Aerosmith's Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and both failed."
What's the Best Type of Roller-Coaster Ride to Release Kidney Stones?
Based on his experience with different types of roller coasters, Wartinger told MSU Today that "some roller coaster rides are too fast and too violent with a G-force that pins the stone into the kidney and doesn't allow it to pass."
The ideal ride, he noted, is "rough and quick with some twists and turns."5 The best results were realized when riding a moderate-intensity roller coaster that did not involve any upside down or inverted movements.
Wartinger, who has since retired from MSU, does not think the research will extend to human trials because no one has expressed interest in continuing the work.6
Interestingly, the idea to pursue this research came about after a number of patients treated by the researchers reported passing kidney stones spontaneously after riding the same roller coaster in Disney's Magic Kingdom. About this anecdotal evidence, Mitchell and Wartinger stated:7
"The number of stone passages was sufficient to raise suspicions of a possible link between riding a roller coaster and passing [kidney stones]. One patient reported passing [kidney stones] after each of three consecutive rides on the roller coaster.
Many patients reported passing [kidney stones] within hours of leaving the amusement park, and all of them rode the same rollercoaster during their visit."
Based on his experience with different sizes of stones, Wartinger told Newsweek the benefits of roller coaster rides might apply only to small stones (up to 0.5 centimeters in diameter).8 Riding a roller coaster may not be beneficial for everyone with a kidney stone.
"You need to heed the warnings before going on a roller coaster," Wartinger advised. "If you have a kidney stone, but are otherwise healthy and meet the requirements of the ride, patients should try it. It's definitely a lower-cost alternative to health care."9
Another option, Wartinger says, is to take annual maintenance rides to reduce your chance of future issues. Roller coaster rides might also be beneficial to flush out remnants that are sometimes left behind after lithotripsy - a procedure used to break apart kidney stones deemed too large to pass naturally.
"The problem though is lithotripsy can leave remnants in the kidney which can result in another stone," Wartinger said. "The best way to potentially eliminate this from happening is to try going on a roller coaster after a treatment when the remnants are still small."10
Important Facts About Your Kidneys
Because your kidneys are only about the size of your fist and are safely tucked inside your body in your lower back, you may not pay much attention to them. That said, these bean-shaped organs are vital to your well-being and they stay plenty busy around the clock. According to the National Kidney Foundation, your kidneys have five top jobs, including:11
- Balancing your pH levels - Your kidneys help maintain a healthy balance of the chemicals that control your body's acid levels by either removing or adjusting acid levels and buffering agents
- Controlling your blood pressure - Because your kidneys need pressure to work properly, they play a role in raising or lowering your blood pressure through fluid levels and the making of a hormone that causes your blood vessels to constrict
- Keeping your bones healthy - Your kidneys make an active form of vitamin D and also balance your calcium and phosphorus levels, which are necessary to make your bones strong
- Making red blood cells - A hormone called erythropoietin is made by your kidneys and it tells your bone marrow to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen from your lungs to supply your body's energy needs
- Removing wastes and extra fluid - Your kidneys filter about 200 quarts of blood daily that results in about 1 to 2 quarts of urine (containing extra fluid and waste products), which is sent to your bladder for removal from your body
What Are Kidney Stones?
Kidney stones (renal calculi) are hard deposits made of chemicals, minerals and salts that form inside your kidneys. They are just one of several conditions known to contribute to chronic kidney disease. Your kidneys are also affected by diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as by congenital or genetic conditions like polycystic kidney disease.
Most often, kidney stones result when your urine contains too little liquid and too much waste. Stones can begin as crystals, which in turn attract other elements to create a solid object that will continue to increase in size unless it is passed out of your body in urine. A few of the kidney stone-forming chemicals in your body are: calcium, cystine, oxalate, phosphate, urate and xanthine.12
Once formed, a stone may remain in your kidney or travel down your urinary tract into your ureter. Smaller stones may pass out of your body in urine without too much pain. Bigger stones that do not move often cause a backup of urine in your kidney, ureter, bladder or urethra, which can be extremely painful. With respect to kidney stones, the National Kidney Foundation estimates:13
- More than half a million people visit the emergency room annually for issues related to kidney stones
- The average person has a 10 percent chance of experiencing a kidney stone in his/her lifetime
- The lifetime risk of having a stone is roughly 19 percent in men and 9 percent in women
- In men, the first episode often occurs after age 30, but could be earlier
- Diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity may increase your risk of kidney stones
Symptoms of a Kidney Stone
The sizes and shapes of kidney stones vary as much as the people who have them. Some are as small as a grain of sand, while others are pebble size. In rare cases, kidney stones can be as large as a golf ball! When stones are too large to pass, doctors act to remove the stones or break them into smaller pieces that potentially can be passed out of your body.
As you may imagine, the larger the stone, the more noticeable your symptoms and the greater the likelihood of pain, which some have suggested can be as intense as childbirth. You can recognize a kidney stone according to the following symptoms:14
Blood in your urine
Fever and chills
Nausea or vomiting
Severe pain on either side of your lower back
Stomachache that persists or other pain that doesn't go away
Urine that smells bad or looks cloudy
Types of Kidney Stones
Two of the most common types of kidney stones are calcium oxalate and uric acid stones. Less common varieties are cystine stones, which reoccur and have a genetic link, and struvite stones, which are caused by an infection in your upper urinary tract. Here's a little more detail about the two common types:
- Calcium oxalate - Your body typically creates this type of stone due to inadequate calcium and fluid intake, but other conditions may cause their formation. As the name implies, these stones are formed when calcium combines with oxalate in your urine.
- Uric acid - A diet high in purines, a natural chemical compound found in foods such as organ meats and shellfish, contributes to a higher production of monosodium urate in your body. Given the right conditions, higher levels of urate can lead to the formation of kidney stones. Uric acid kidney stones tend to run in families.
What Causes Kidney Stones?
Certain factors influence your risk of developing kidney stones. As a general rule, if you drink too little water, you put yourself at increased risk of stones because your kidneys need plenty of water to flush out waste products. Below are some of the other possible causes of kidney stones:15
Dehydration from not drinking enough liquids
Diet too high in oxalate, protein, salt or sugar (including high fructose corn syrup)
Digestive diseases like Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis
Infections or obstructions
Exercise (too little or too much)
Family history and genetics
Your risk of kidney stones increases if you have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or have undergone weight-loss surgery. With respect to these conditions, the National Kidney Foundation states:16
"It is important to know that kidney stones are more common if you have Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). These conditions affect your body's ability to absorb fats properly. When fat is not absorbed the right way, the fat binds to calcium and leaves oxalate behind. The oxalate is then absorbed and taken to the kidney, where it can form stones.
Similarly, following gastric bypass surgery, your body absorbs less calcium from your digestive system. Because of this, higher levels of oxalate are found in the urinary tract. The buildup of oxalate can form crystals, which can form kidney stones."
Ways to Prevent Kidney Stones
Because a lack of fluid is a common cause of kidney stones, drinking plenty of water is one of the best ways you can prevent their development. If you are dealing with a chronic condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure or obesity, you are at an increased risk of developing kidney stones.
Given the link between kidney stones and a diet high in purines, I recommend you limit your protein intake to one-half gram per pound of lean body mass. Most people need just 40 to 70 grams of protein daily, which is much less than you may be eating, particularly if you are consuming the standard American diet.
If you're prone to kidney stones, excess amounts of red meat can be particularly problematic because they decrease your body's levels of citrate, which is the chemical in your urine responsible for helping to prevent kidney stones from forming in the first place.
Most Americans consume far more protein than they need, which can heighten your risk of kidney stones. When you consume more protein than your body needs it has to remove even more nitrogen waste products from your blood, which stresses your kidneys. This predisposes you to chronic dehydration.
If you are prone to kidney stones or at increased risk, you would be wise to avoid the following foods, which contain high amounts of oxalate:
Keep in mind you need sufficient amounts of magnesium because it helps prevent calcium from blending with oxalate to create the most common type of kidney stone. Magnesium, if you get enough, is a mineral that has the capacity to actually help prevent kidney stones.
Beyond your kidneys, your body also needs magnesium for the healthy function of most cells, including your heart and muscles. Unfortunately, most Americans suffer from magnesium deficiency.
Safe and Effective Ways to Treat Kidney Stones
In case you are not keen on riding a roller coaster as a possible treatment for kidney stones, you may want to check out my article How to Get Rid of Kidney Stones Effectively as well as the one titled How to Prevent and Treat Kidney Problems With Food.
In these writeups I share a lengthy list of natural remedies and foods to help you dissolve stones and encourage them to pass through your system.
Whatever you do, I advise against taking prescription drugs (including opioids) and over-the-counter (OTC) diuretics and pain relievers unless absolutely necessary. These medications are often accompanied by harsh potential side effects that may further damage your health and derail your recovery.
If the stones have still not released after trying one or more of the natural methods, or if you have a stone that is too big to pass on its own, you may need to consider a removal procedure.
Some of the recommended treatments include: shockwave lithotripsy (SWL), ureteroscopy, percutaneous nephrolithotomy (PCNL) or open surgery. That said, make sure you exhaust the natural options before electing surgery, and make sure you're familiar with the effects of these procedures.
As a potential last resort before surgery, assuming you have a smaller stone and are in good health, you may want to consider taking your kidney stone out to an amusement park. You just might be one of the lucky people who is able to pass a kidney stone after being bounced around at top speed on your favorite roller-coaster ride. While it sounds a bit crazy, you just might find relief.