Can Roller-Coaster Rides Remove Kidney Stones? Innovative Research Wins Ig Nobel Prize

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Judges awarded this year’s Ig Nobel Prize for medicine to researchers who investigated the kidney-stone-passing potential of roller coasters.

Researchers thought the fast-paced, looping rides might help dislodge the dreaded mineral clumps, which are often very painful to pass.

Kidney stones are salt and mineral deposits that build up in the kidneys. Usually they travel out of the body through the urinary tract, but sometimes surgery is required to remove them. Although they don’t normally cause permanent damage, kidney stones can cause severe pain as they move through the body.

Researcher David Wartinger took a silicone model of a human renal system filled with urine and kidney stones on Walt Disney World’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Orlando, Florida, a ride that rattles passengers from side to side as well as up and down.

Sure enough, the ride helped ease the passage of stones through the silicon urinary tract. Rear seats, Wartinger and colleague Marc Mitchell discovered, offered the best results.

"If I personally was unfortunate enough to have a kidney stone, I would take the time and effort to locate a moderate-intensity roller coaster and go for a half-dozen rides," Wartinger told Newsweek. But he cautioned that the benefits might only extend to stones up to about 0.2 inches in diameter. 

The team considered using animal models but eventually deemed them inappropriate for the research setting, “owing to ambient temperature and the inappropriate display of such material in a family-friendly amusement park.”

Wartinger and Mitchell published their results in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. Unfortunately for kidney stone patients seeking a more exciting removal method, Wartinger doesn't think the research will extend to human trials. The data was gathered more than a decade ago, before his retirement, and no North American theme park has expressed interest in continuing the work, he said. However, the silicone model has been used to develop a surgical training tool.

"It's always great to have your work appreciated by your peers," Wartinger said. "It was an honor to be recognized by the Ig Nobel committee." 

The Ig Nobel Prize recognizes amusing but ultimately important research. This year it offered ten prizes in the categories of medicine, anthropology, biology, chemistry, medical education, literature, nutrition, peace, reproductive medicine and economics. Past winners include Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch, who won 2006’s physics prize for their exploration of why spaghetti almost never seems to snap in two.

This year, winners included John Barry, Bruce Blank and Michel Boileau, who won the reproductive medicine prize for their innovative research into male sexual health. They used postage stamps to test penile function.

Lindie Hanyu Liang, Douglas Brown, Huiwen Lian, Samuel Hanig, D. Lance Ferris and Lisa Keeping won the economics prize for their research into the effectiveness of using voodoo dolls on bosses.

Judges awarded the peace prize to Francisco Alonso, Cristina Esteban, Andrea Serge, Maria-Luisa Ballestar, Jaime Sanmartín, Constanza Calatayud and Beatriz Alamar for their analysis of road rage. The team tracked how often drivers shouted and cursed, and probed their motivations and the effects of their behavior.

You can watch the entire ceremony—complete with skits, paper-airplane deluges and even a mini-opera—below.

This article has been updated to include comment from David Wartinger.

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