What Is Physical Abuse, And How Do You Identify A Person Experiencing Abuse?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Physical abuse can be defined as any deliberate act of force against another person that results in harm, injury, or trauma to that person’s body. It may have serious consequences that affect the well-being of the survivor, and in some cases, it can bring about psychological conditions and complications. It is often used as a tactic for one person to gain control over another. If you’ve experienced any kind of abuse, therapy can be a helpful resource that may show you how to heal and move forward.

Are you or a loved one experiencing physical abuse?

An overview of physical abuse

The terms physical abuse and domestic violence are often used interchangeably. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) defines domestic violence as “the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another.”

The effects of physical abuse can be both acute (short-term) and chronic (lasting for a long period of time). Physical abuse is often far-reaching and affects the friends and loved ones of both the target and the abuser.

Physical abuse may affect a large percentage of the country. On average, over 10 million American adults may be abused by their spouses or partners each year, according to the NCADV. One in 15 children may either witness or experience physical abuse at home. 

The NCADV reports that 79% of at-risk individuals may either avoid or escape abuse with professional intervention. Since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, intimate partner physical abuse has generally declined by 67%. Recognizing warning signs of physical abuse and knowing if you or someone else is at risk can be important ways to facilitate early intervention and recovery.

Below are some common red flags you can look for.

Physical symptoms of abuse

There are several warning signs typically associated with abuse. The outward, visible signs are usually the first indication that someone is experiencing physical abuse. The most obvious signs may include:

Bruises 

Bruises can be a warning sign of abuse, especially if the individual will only speak vaguely about how the bruising occurred. The most obvious bruises may be black eyes or bruised cheekbones. However, bruising may occur on any part of the body. 

Broken bones

Survivors of physical abuse who experience broken bones may have a history of more than one broken bone. X-rays will likely show fractures or breaks in various stages of healing.

Burns

Most of the time, when people think of a burn associated with physical abuse, they think of cigarette burns. This can be a common type of physical abuse. However, other types of burns may indicate abuse as well. For instance, an infant or young child may experience severe burns or blisters from being submerged in scalding bath water. Grease burns that cover a large area of the body, especially on a person who is too young or unable to cook, can also be common signs of physical abuse.

Head injuries

A common sign of physical abuse can be a concussion. Not all concussions may be related to abuse, however. But if a survivor is evasive about the way a head injury occurred or must be treated more than once for a similar injury, this could be a warning sign.

Emotional symptoms related to physical abuse

Some symptoms of abuse may be less visible. The emotional effects of abuse can be overwhelming and even debilitating. Perpetrators of abuse usually begin with emotional or mental abuse before their behavior escalates to physical violence. 

People who experience abuse often report that they felt as though they "deserved it" or that if they could "be better," perhaps their abuser wouldn't harm them. While this may be far from the truth, the roots of this thinking can run deep. Some emotional symptoms of physical abuse may include, but are not limited to, the following:

Anxiety (especially in the presence of the abuser) 

Young children may appear fearful and nervous in the presence of their abuser. On the flip side, they may appear more comfortable with a parent or another adult who makes them feel safe. Adults can exhibit this symptom as well.

Disturbed eating habits

Survivors of abuse may experience a loss of appetite and begin to lose weight. Others may be "emotional eaters" who may binge eat as a way of coping.

Nightmares or altered sleeping patterns

People experiencing abuse may struggle to stay awake or report nightmares from disturbed sleep habits. Children may experience bed-wetting.

Depression

Even small children can experience depression. Any deviation from normal emotional responses may be a potential symptom of this mental illness.

Behavioral changes

People who have experienced abuse may exhibit changes in behavior, such as aggression or hostility. They may also become withdrawn and lose interest in things they used to enjoy.

At-risk Populations

In general, abuse is non-discriminatory and can affect individuals regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, age, and socioeconomic background. Although these descriptors cannot tell us who will be abused or who will become an abuser, sometimes they can help us identify people who may be more at risk for abuse. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, one in four women (24.3%) and one in seven men (13.8%) aged 18 and older in the United States have generally experienced severe physical violence in their lifetime.

Risk factors for physical abuse

Below, you may read about potential risk factors for physical abuse.

Individuals with a physical or mental disability

People who have a physical or mental disability are often vulnerable and may be at risk of being abused by a caregiver or another person in their lives. People with disabilities may also be less capable of defending themselves or asking for help, and this can make them even more vulnerable to abuse.

Are you or a loved one experiencing physical abuse?

Substance use disorders

People who misuse substances or alcohol may sometimes find themselves in relationships with people who are aggressive or abusive. If someone is experiencing addiction, they can also be vulnerable, and this may prevent them from defending themselves or reaching out for help.

Culture

Although there tends to be more awareness about abuse today than in times past, there can still be some cultural factors that may increase the chances of someone being abused. For example, many people can be taught that their significant other is the leader of the home and, therefore, has a right to discipline or correct family members as they please, even when their behavior amounts to physical and/or sexual or emotional abuse. As a result, some may believe that it's inappropriate to report abuse or to question their abuser’s actions.

The factors referenced in this list may not be the only risk factors that can make someone vulnerable to abuse, but they tend to be some of the most common.  

Getting help

If you or someone you know has been physically abused and is injured, please seek immediate medical attention. If your injury is severe, go to the nearest emergency room. Remember, healthcare providers are generally there to help and defend you. They can provide care for your immediate injury and refer you to long-term help for your abusive situation. For those who have been physically abused but do not require immediate medical attention, there are additional resources:

  • For abuse involving gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people, the Gay and Lesbian National Hotline can offer assistance. The number is 1-888-THE-GLNH (1-888-849-4564).

  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7899).

  • For people who experience physical and sexual abuse, the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network can offer help. Call 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673).

  • WomensLaw.org can also offer help and referrals to survivors of abuse. They list shelters and support groups in addition to offering crisis counseling and safety planning assistance. 

  • The Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence typically focuses on policies and training for lawyers who represent survivors of violence. The Commission partners with the U.S. Department of Justice and other agencies across the country to provide knowledge to those who represent survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

Moving forward

Survivors of abuse often feel ashamed and overwhelmed by their situation. Many times, this stops them from seeking help from a therapist. However, finding support from the right resources can be crucial for anyone moving toward recovery. That may be why alternatives to traditional, in-person therapy can be especially beneficial for survivors of abuse. Many people may feel uncomfortable about connecting with a therapist in person, and that’s okay.

Benefits of online therapy

When you feel ready to reach out and seek healing through therapy, you may want to consider online therapy from platforms like BetterHelp. With the advances in modern technology, many people have gravitated toward online therapy because this format is often more convenient in our hectic, fast-paced world. Online therapy can empower you to get the professional guidance you deserve from the comfort of your chosen location at a time that fits your schedule.

Effectiveness of online therapy

Online therapy has generally been associated with positive outcomes for individuals experiencing intimate partner violence. One study showed that internet-based interventions for these individuals were not only effective but more accessible as well. 

Check out reviews for some of our licensed counselors below:

Counselor reviews

"Sharon Valentino has helped me through so much! Since we started working together, just a few months ago, I already feel like I have more power and control over my life. I have let go of some very painful things, I have moved away from abusive relationships and really gaining skills and tools I need to keep myself safe and happy. She has taught me that I have the power to control my thoughts, my anxiety, and most of all my company. I really like how direct she is, it helps me get grounded and connect to myself. I can't wait to see where I am after working with her [for] a year!"

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Takeaway

In general, physical abuse involves deliberate acts of force against another person, resulting in injury, trauma, or another form of harm. Some physical signs of abuse can include bruises, broken bones, burns, and head injuries. Emotional signs of abuse may include anxiety, depression, and changes in sleep patterns, eating habits, and behavior. It can be possible to overcome the effects of abuse, and therapy can be one way to receive professional support and guidance.
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