Physical Abuse

What is physical abuse?


Physical abuse is the most widely recognised and understood form of abuse. Although abuse is not limited to physical abuse, and not all abuse becomes violent, it does pose a very real and immediate threat to individual safety. It can be defined as any violence or intentional bodily injury including indirect physically harmful behaviour, such as the withholding of physical needs, or the threat of violence.


Examples of physical abuse

  • Direct assault on the body including scratching, punching, biting, strangling, kicking, slapping, pushing, pulling hair, burning, drowning, grabbing clothing.

  • Throwing something at you, for example a phone, book, crockery, footwear, or other household items.

  • Destruction of property.

  • Sexual abuse.

  • Violence against other family members or pets.

  • Use of weapons.

  • Physical restraint, for example being trapped in a room, having an exit blocked, being held down, grabbing to prevent you from leaving or forcing you to go somewhere, or holding someone hostage.

  • Coercing a partner into substance abuse.

  • Withholding of physical needs, for example denying food, restricting mobility, preventing access to medical help if sick or injured, refusing or rationing necessities, controlling or withholding medication.

  • Abuse from those with caring responsibilities might include force feeding, withdrawal of medicine or over-medication.

  • Types of physical abuse within families also include female genital mutilation (FGM) or so-called "honour crimes".


The 2017 Crime Survey for England and Wales found that some respondents thought it was always, mostly or sometimes acceptable to hit or slap a partner in response to:

- Having an affair or cheating on them (7.1%)

- Flirting with other people (2%)

- Constantly nagging or moaning (1.5%) (ONS, 2018).


All forms of physical abuse, no matter the circumstances or the level of harm done, should be taken seriously. Similarly, although alcohol and drug use might act as a catalyst for abuse it does not cause it and certainly does not excuse violence or abusive behaviour.


How to spot signs of physical abuse?

The existence of any of the following does not mean necessarily mean an individual is experiencing physical abuse, however some signs could be:

  • Frequent injuries, multiple bruising. Common areas could be wrists, neck, bruises on arms, black eyes, or busted lips.

  • Untreated injuries in various stages of healing suggests that injuries have been sustained over a prolonged period of time and could be a sign of frequent abuse.

  • No explanation for injuries of inconsistencies in the account of what happened.

  • Covering up injuries, for example by wearing long sleeves or scarves in hot weather, wearing easier makeup than usual, or sunglasses to cover bruising.

  • Physical abuse may also cause a change in behaviour such as increased agitation, anxiety, seeming fearful, low self-esteem, depression, loss of interest in or cancelling activities, overly apologetic or meek, excessive privacy concerning home life, or isolating oneself.


It is not unusual for abuse to begin at a low-level and escalate into more serious forms of physical abuse once it is harder for a victim to leave. It is important to understand that leaving an abuser is dangerous and if you suspect someone is experiencing physical abuse you should not pressure them to leave their abuser before they are ready or before they have an adequate safety plan in place. In England and Wales, a woman is killed by her current or former partner every four days (Women's Aid) and are at the highest risk immediately after leaving an abuser. 41% of women killed by a former partner in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2018 had separated or taken steps to separate from them (Femicide Census, 2020). If you are experiencing abuse, you are not alone and there are a number of frontline services available that can provide guidance on how to safely manage your individual situation. Read our advice on how to create a safety plan here.


In an emergency call 999 if you are in the UK, or your national emergency number.