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physical abuse

Alternative Names 
domestic violence, child abuse, elderly abuse, spousal/partner abuse

Physical abuse is forceful behaviour that can result in injury to another person. An abuser uses beatings to control the victim. The abuse rarely occurs just one time. Physical abuse may be accompanied by sexual and/or emotional abuse.

A victim of physical abuse might be:
  • pushed or thrown
  • slapped, hit, or punched
  • burned, often with a cigarette
  • kicked
  • bitten
  • choked
  • tied down
  • assaulted with a weapon
A victim may also suffer from being shaken. When a person is severely shaken, causing clots and swelling on the brain, bleeding into the eye, and bruises on the upper arms. This is much like shaken baby syndrome.

Men, women, and children can all be victims of physical abuse. Victims can be any age, and from any ethnic, religious, or economic group.

What are the signs and symptoms of the injury? 
Most injuries occur to the neck, head, chest, breast, lower back, and belly. Victims who are pregnant are often beaten in the breast and belly. Even though they may be severely hurt, victims often do not seek medical help right away.

A person may have been physically abused if he or she has:
  • bruises, scrapes, and cuts anywhere on the body
  • rope burns or burns from something hot, such as a cigarette
  • fractured bones or teeth
  • a sprained finger, arm, or leg
  • broken bones
  • injuries on different parts of the body, in different stages of healing
  • physical symptoms, such as a headache, related to posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, or stress
What are the causes and risks of the injury? 
While there is no specific type of person who is at risk for abuse, certain factors do put some people at greater risk. These risk factors include:
  • being a female, especially between the ages of 17 and 34
  • being a drug or alcohol abuser or having a partner who is one
  • being pregnant
  • being in the first 5 years of a new marriage or a live-in relationship
  • being unemployed
  • being socially and emotionally isolated
  • living in poverty, living in poor housing conditions, moving often
  • being in a marriage or relationship where one person is more dominant than the other
What can be done to prevent the injury? 
Society needs to be educated about what physical abuse is and how it can be identified and stopped. Developing trust within organisations and communities is important so that people feel comfortable talking about abuse or potential abuse. Prevention also means taking an active role in promoting social change and making efforts to influence legislative reforms.

Resources are available to abuse victims within their community. Books and articles about child abuse are readily available. Supporting and promoting training and education on recognising and addressing physical abuse are other preventive measures.

Friends, neighbours, family members, and health care professionals need to ask directly about signs of possible abuse. For instance, if a person has unexplained bruising, ask him or her how it happened. The person may not say how they were hurt, but his or her reaction may provide more information about the situation. Asking the right questions can sometimes make the victim feel less isolated. Showing concern lets the victim know that there is someone to turn to if he or she needs help.

How is the injury recognised? 
Physical abuse is usually recognised by the signs listed above.

What are the treatments for the injury? 
The ultimate goal in treating a victim of physical abuse is to get the person to re-establish his or her life without the abuser. For many reasons, the victim may not be able or ready to leave the abuser. Providing the victim with information about ways to get help in the future is very important. If they have a plan in place for leaving the abuser, maybe the next time they are abused, they will be able to get away safely.

First, the victim's physical injuries must be treated by a doctor. Next, if possible, the victim needs to separate him or herself from the abuser. He or she may have to stay with a friend or relative, or move to a shelter. Sometimes children need to be placed in foster care.

The victim also will need counselling. They may need help to regain their self-esteem. Marriage counselling is not appropriate in cases where there is physical abuse because it has been found to increase the risk of additional abuse.

Author: Elizabeth Smith, BA
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 21/1/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.

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