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Jewish Ritual Could Prevent Heart Damage

Ann Thompson
UC bioengineering student Akiva Kirschner wears tefillin on his arm and stands alongside Jack Rubinstein, MD, UC Health cardiologist.

A UC Health cardiologist is studying whether the Orthodox Jewish practice of wearing tefillin, a tight leather band strapped around the arm and worn during 30 minutes of daily prayer, can protect against heart damage. A pilot study suggests it might.

Jack Rubinstein, MD, associate professor in the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine's Division of Cardiovascular Health and Disease, enrolled 20 Greater Cincinnati Jewish men - nine who wear tefillin daily and 11 who don't use it - in the study. His lab measured vital signs and blood flow.

"We found people who wear tefillin in either the short or long term, recorded a measurable positive effect on their blood flow," he explains. "This has been associated with better outcomes in heart disease." 

How Pain In One Part Of The Body Protects Another

The concept is called ischemic preconditioning and researchers have been studying it for 30 years. At an airport in Maine, Rubinstein felt discomfort while wearing his tefillin and wondered if that pain was enough to protect the heart.

"The fact that tefillin is worn every day means that the people who are wearing it every day have protection for a certain amount of time during that day for said heart attack," says Rubinstein, who adds that because doctors don't know when a heart attack is going to happen it is hard to study the concept on people.

He explains it this way: After a heart attack, when the patient is not getting enough blood and the body is in distress, it sends marching orders and attack cells. These attack cells are turned on and that does further damage to the heart. It is potentially different in men who wear tefillin.

The Attack Cells Are Chill

"So what we found is these attacking cells are chilled out. They're relaxed," Rubinstein says of the tefillin-wearing participants. "They show up and are like, 'Nothing to do here.' And all of the fighting signals are totally turned down as well."

Rubinstein thinks this could translate into benefits for everyone. He's working to develop non-religious banding. He warns against using a rubber band or some type of tourniquet because cutting off blood flow entirely can cause damage. More study is needed to determine what role the men's spirituality and socialization played. That was not factored into this pilot study.

The results are available online in the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.