Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors
Physical abuse is forceful behavior 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 emotional abuse. A recent study of
girls in 9th through 12th grade found that one out of five girls were
physically and/or sexually abused by a dating partner.
A victim of physical abuse might be:
assaulted with a weapon
burned, often with a cigarette
pushed or thrown
slapped, hit, or punched
A victim may also suffer from being shaken. When a person is severely shaken,
the injury can cause clots and swelling in the brain. 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 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 drug or
alcohol abuser or having
a partner who is one
being a female, especially between the ages of 17 and 34
being in the first 5 years of a new marriage or a live-in relationship
being in a marriage or relationship in which one person is more dominant
than the other
being socially and emotionally isolated
living in poverty, living in poor housing conditions, moving often
Experts know that adolescents who have been abused are
at higher risk for other health problems. However, we do not yet know whether
the health problems came before the abuse, or if the abuse increased the risk
for the health problem. These problems include the following:
including binge drinking
risky sexual behaviors, including intercourse before age 15 and multiple
suicidal attempts or
Symptoms & Signs
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 abdomen. Even
though they may be severely hurt, victims often do not seek medical help right
A person may have been physically abused if he or she has:
broken or missing teeth
bruises, scrapes, and cuts anywhere on the body
injuries on different parts of the body, in different stages of healing
rope burns or burns from something hot, such as a cigarette
a sprained finger, arm, or leg
Diagnosis & Tests
How is the injury recognized?
Diagnosis of physical abuse begins with a medical history and
physical exam. The healthcare provider may order tests to diagnose specific
injuries, such as a bone
Prevention & Expectations
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 organizations 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.
The best way to prevent abuse is to teach people how to solve problems without
using violence. Teenagers and young adults should be taught that it's never OK
to abuse a partner. Parents and healthcare providers should provide teens with
information and statistics about dating violence. The teens should be given
specific information about behaviors that are part of dating violence. They
should be encouraged to discuss any issues or concerns with a parent or other
Since health concerns such as cocaine use are associated with a
higher risk for physical abuse, healthcare providers should address dating
violence when treating people with these health concerns. Careful screening can
help identify at-risk individuals and provide the opportunity to stop the abuse
Resources are available to abuse victims within their communities. Books and
articles about child
abuse are readily available. Supporting and promoting training and
education on recognizing and addressing physical abuse are other preventive
Friends, neighbors, family members, and healthcare providers 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 it happened, 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.
Treatment & Monitoring
What are the treatments for the injury?
First, the victim's physical injuries must be treated by a healthcare provider.
Bone fractures may need
to be repaired. If there are internal injuries, surgery may be needed. Next, if
possible, the victim needs to separate himself 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 ultimate goal in treating a victim of physical abuse is to get the person
to reestablish 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 he or
she has a plan in place for leaving the abuser, maybe the next time he or she
is abused, he or she will be able to get away safely.
What are the side effects of the treatments?
Side effects depend on the treatment used. Surgery to repair
internal injuries, for example, may cause bleeding, infection, or allergic reaction to anesthesia.
What happens after treatment for the injury?
Victims of physical abuse will need counseling. They may need help
to regain their self-esteem. Support groups can be helpful in this healing
Long-term effects can include posttraumatic stress
disorder. The victim may have the following conditions:
acute situational anxiety generalized anxiety disorder panic disorder post-traumatic stress disorder phobias obsessive compulsive disorders
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feelings of isolation
nightmares and flashbacks
a tendency to avoid other people
Even if the victim doesn't suffer from posttraumatic stress
disorder, he or she may have other long-term effects, such as:
living in poverty
trouble staying in school or keeping a job
Studies show that half of men who abuse their partners also abuse their
children. Abused mothers often have trouble holding jobs. They also
are more likely to need welfare. This means that children from abusive homes
are at a greater risk of being poor and homeless.