A recent study published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association made headlines when it reported that riding a moderate-intensity roller coaster could dislodge small kidney stones.
But some experts—including the study's lead author—say the news coverage has been hyperbolic.
Background on the study
Researchers from Michigan State University printed a 3-D, life-sized kidney from a silicone cast and filled it with diluted urine and real—albeit small—kidney stones of 5 millimeters or less in diameter. From there, two researchers went to Walt Disney World, where they rode one roller coaster 20 times, each time holding the model at kidney height.
After riding the roller coaster, the researchers found that the kidney stones often moved from the periphery of the kidney toward the top of the ureter, representing a successful passing of the kidney stone. Depending on where the researchers were sitting on the ride, the stones passed between 17 and 64 percent of the time. Sitting in the rear of the roller coaster was associated with a higher success rate.
The findings attracted widespread news coverage, with more than 148,000 Google News results and stories from NBC News, New York Times, and more. "This was indisputably fun science ... [so] that it went viral was entirely inevitable," writes Slate's Susan Matthews. But, she argues, "It was also unfortunate."
Matthews writes that "beneath all its quirkiness and all that delightful banter about urine," the small study was meant to be a starting point for further research, but instead was labelled as a cure by several outlets.
For instance, the NBC News headline read, "Research Finds Thrilling Cure for Kidney Stones: Roller Coasters," while CNN's headline declared, "Little kidney stone? Ride a roller coaster, says study."
Matthews argues that several aspects of the study make it "downright impossible to use the results ... to reach any kind of conclusion about whether roller coasters in general help people in general pass kidney stones," including the:
- The lack of a sufficient control;
- Possible problems with the model kidney, which was printed from silicone and not living tissue;
- The small size of the kidney stones used in the experiment; and
- Small study sample size, with just one artificial human kidney and one roller coaster.
"There's nothing really wrong with this study," Matthews writes. "None of the problems [are] significant enough to warrant a debunking. There's nothing really to debunk. There's also nothing really to affirm," she adds. "This is a classic case of 'Huh! That might be a thing. Let's test it a lot more.'"
The problem started, she continues, when media outlets took the study past its scientific limits, declaring that roller coasters could be the new cure for kidney stones.
Even lead author David Wartinger agreed. "I've tried not to look at the online articles," he told Slate. "Some of them are clearly just meant to fill space and catch people's attention."
Wartinger added, "I wish [the coverage] was a little bit less quirky and [people] took it a little more seriously" (Matthews, Slate, 10/3; Fox, NBC News, 9/27; Willingham, CNN, 9/28; Yin, New York Times, 10/3).
Cut through the hype and ensure your recommendations are evidence-based
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