What Is Physical Abuse And What Are The Telltale Signs?

Updated January 23, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include sexual assault & violence which could potentially be triggering.

If we want to end physical abuse, we need to begin by understanding what it is and how we can identify signs of abuse. Although abuse can take many forms— including verbal, sexual, and emotional, just to name a few— in this article, we’re going to take a close look at physical abuse. 

As its name suggests, physical abuse is 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 numerous psychological conditions and complications. It is often used as a tactic for one person to gain control over another.

Physical Abuse Is Not Uncommon

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/or loved ones of both the individual and the abuser.

Physical abuse affects a large percentage of the country. Over 10 million American adults on average are abused by their spouses or partners each year, according to the NCADV. One in 15 children either witnesses or experiences physical abuse at home. 

But there is also cause for hope. The NCADV reports that 79 percent of at-risk individuals either avoid or escape abuse with professional intervention. In fact, since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, intimate partner physical abuse has declined by 67 percent. Recognizing warning signs of physical abuse and knowing if you or someone else is at risk are 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 associated with abuse. The outward, visible signs are usually the first indication that someone is experiencing physical abuse. The most obvious signs include:

Bruises (Especially If The Individual Seems Vague About How The Bruising Occurred). 

The most obvious bruises are 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.


Most of the time, when people think of a burn associated with physical abuse, they think of cigarette burns. This is 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, are also common signs of physical abuse.

Head Injuries

A common sign of physical abuse is a concussion. Not all concussions are related to abuse. 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

The symptoms referenced in the previous paragraph are the most obvious signs of physical abuse. But some symptoms may be less visible. The emotional effects of abuse can be overwhelming and even debilitating. Abusers 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 is far from the truth, the roots of this thinking run deep. Some emotional symptoms of physical abuse include, but are not limited to:

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 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

Children may struggle to stay awake or report nightmares from disturbed sleep habits.


Even small children can experience depression. Any deviation from normal emotional responses is 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.

Bed-Wetting (occurs primarily in children)

At-Risk Populations

Abuse is non-discriminatory and affects individuals regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, age, and socio-economic 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, 1 in 4 women (24.3 percent) and 1 in 7 men (13.8 percent) aged 18 and older in the United States have experienced severe physical violence in their lifetime.

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 makes them even more vulnerable to abuse.

Physical Abuse Is Not Uncommon

Substance Use Disorders

People who misuse drugs 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.


Although there is more awareness about abuse today than in times past, there are still some cultural factors that may increase the chances of someone being abused. Many women are taught that their husband (or significant other) is the leader of the home and therefore has a right to discipline or correct family as he pleases, even when his behavior amounts to physical and/or sexual or emotional abuse. As a result, some women often feel that it's inappropriate to report abuse or to question their abusers' actions.

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

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 there to help and defend you. They can provide care for your immediate injury and can 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 offers help. Call 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673).

  • WomensLaw.org also offers 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 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 with 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. But finding support from the right resources is crucial for anyone moving forward toward recovery. That’s 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.

When you feel ready to reach out and seek hope and 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. Rather than needing to amend your schedule to attend an in-person therapy appointment, online therapy is literally right at your fingertips. You can chat with your therapist from your own phone or computer any time you want. 

Online therapy has also 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 also more accessible. 

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!"

"Billie is wonderful. She's kind, responsive, caring, validating - everything I could ever hope for in a therapist. I came from a very abusive, traumatic childhood that still influences who I am, and Billie is helping me undo that damage. She answers me every day, responds to everything I write to her, and always answers my questions. When I get stuck, she nudges me forward with gentle suggestions that I can use or not. She's respectful and gentle always! I feel like I'm making so much progress with her, and I feel so, so, so lucky to have her!"


In a world full of uncertainties, one thing is certain—you are not alone. If you or a loved one has been affected by physical abuse, there is help available to you. You can get support from an online therapist today. Take the first step.

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