As It Happens

Got kidney stones? This doctor says roller coasters could be the cure

Having kidney stones can be a painful roller coaster ride. But Michigan doctor David Wartinger has just discovered actual roller coaster rides can help treat the condition.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is one of the most popular rides at Disney's Magic Kingdom theme park in Orlando, Florida. David Wartinger, a urological surgeon based in Michigan, says patients he's had with kidney stones reported passing them immediately after riding this railroad coaster. (PAUL HIFFMEYER/DISNEY PARKS VIA GETTY IMAGES/G.L. KOHUTH )
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As a urological surgeon, David Wartinger has seen his fair share of kidney stone cases. Passing the stones can be excruciating, and the medical costs to remove them can be in the thousands of dollars.

But now, the Michigan doctor says he's stumbled on a simple prescription: riding roller coasters.

​His research all started with one patient, who travelled to Orlando's Disney Magic Kingdom theme park. The patient had been riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad when he noticed something strange.

"He got off the ride immediately, and passed a kidney stone. He got on the same coaster, and passed another stone. He rode it a third time, and passed three stones in a row. That was just too compelling to ignore," Wartinger tells As It Happens host Carol Off.

The patient's story fascinated Wartinger. So much so, that the professor decided he needed to replicate the patient's experience.

His pilot study is published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association

Wartinger ended up riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad 240 times, carrying a backpack with the model of a fake kidney.

"We took an actual patient's scan of their kidney. I used software to create a 3D model of the hollow space inside the kidney," he explains.

Kidney stones sit in a jar in the office of David Wartinger, associate professor of osteopathic surgical specialties at Michigan State University. Wartinger discovered that some roller coasters help patients pass kidney stones. (G.L. KOHUTH)

He created a silicone mold of a kidney, and filled it with "real human kidney stones" — and urine. His urine.

"Look, I'm a urologic surgeon. My relationship with urine is different from the average person. It's my bread and butter."

A silicone cast of the inside of a kidney, created by David Wartinger, urological surgeon and professor at Michigan State University. (G.L. KOHUTH)

Wartinger and a medical resident bought plane tickets from Michigan to Orlando, and got to work. But before they could hop on the ride, they wanted to make sure they had the blessing of staff at Disney's Magic Kingdom.

"We thought, two adult men riding the same ride again and again carrying a backpack was going to look a bit suspicious. The first [security] official we spoke to had passed a kidney stone. He called the ride operators, told them, 'We had a couple guys from Michigan State University that are going to try and figure out how to prevent kidney stones, and you're going to help them!'"

To simulate a patient with real kidney stones, Wartinger held the backpack, which held the kidney replica, while riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. He discovered if you sat in the last car of the ride, there was a 70 per cent kidney stone passage rate.

But Wartinger says there's "nothing magic about Big Thunder." And for the squeamish patients, he says the less intense coasters could be just as effective at dislodging kidney stones.

"You don't have to go on the crazy stuff that inverts, and goes 90 miles an hour. Anything vibratory, sustained, and rough will work."

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with David Wartinger.

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