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Physical abuse

Physical abuse

Physical abuse is using physical force that injures you or puts you in danger. Physical abuse can happen in dating or married relationships, but it can also happen outside a relationship. No one — not a spouse, romantic partner, or family member — has the right to physically abuse you.

What is physical abuse?

Physical abuse is any physical force that injures you or puts your health in danger. Physical abuse can include shaking, burning, choking, hair-pulling, hitting, slapping, kicking, and any type of harm with a weapon like a knife or a gun. It can also include threats to hurt you, your children, your pets, or family members. Physical abuse can also include restraining you against your will, by tying you up or locking you in a space. Physical abuse in an intimate partner (romantic or sexual) relationship is also called domestic violence.

Physical abuse is:

  • A crime. Physical abuse is a criminal act, whether it happens inside or outside of the family or an intimate relationship. The police have the power and authority to protect you from physical attack. If someone in a position of power or authority physically abuses you, there are always ways to report them. Physical abuse is a crime even if it happens just one time. You may think that the abuse will never happen again. Your partner may try to convince you that it will never happen again. The abuse may stop, but it is likely to continue. And no one has the right to harm you, even once.
  • Dangerous. Victims whose partners physically abuse them are at a higher risk for serious injury and even death.

If you think you are in an abusive relationship, learn more about getting help. Talk to your doctor or nurse. If you’re in immediate danger or are physically hurt, call 911.

How does physical abuse affect a woman’s health in the long term?

Physical abuse can have lasting effects on your physical and mental health. Physical abuse can cause many chronic (long-lasting) health problems, including heart problems, high blood pressure, and digestive problems.1 Women who are abused are also more likely to develop depression, anxiety, or eating disorders. Women who are abused may also misuse alcohol or drugs as a way to cope.

Learn more about the health effects of physical abuse.

How do I leave a physically abusive relationship?

If you are thinking about leaving an abusive relationship, even if you don’t leave right away, creating a safety plan can help you know what to do if your partner abuses you again. It can help you be more independent when you leave.

Your safety plan will help you be prepared:

  • Identify a safe friend or friends and safe places to go. Create a code word to use with friends, family, or neighbors to let them know you are in danger without the abuser finding out. If possible, agree on a secret location where they can pick you up.
  • Keep an alternate cellphone nearby. Try not to call for help on your home phone or on a shared phone. Your partner might be able to trace the numbers. If you don’t have a cellphone, you can get a prepaid phone. Some domestic violence shelters offer free phones.
  • Memorize the phone numbers of friends, family, or shelters. If your partner takes your phone, you will still be able to contact loved ones or shelters for a safe place to stay.
  • Make a list of things to take if you have to leave quickly. Important identity documents and money are probably the top priority. See the Safety Packing List for a detailed list of items to pack. Get these items together, and keep them in a safe place where your partner will not find them. If you are in immediate danger, leave without them.
  • If you can, hide an extra set of car keys so you can leave if your partner takes away your usual keys.
  • Ask the doctor how to get extra medicine or glasses, hearing aids, or other medically necessary items for you or your children.
  • Contact your local family court (or domestic violence court, if your state has one) for information about getting a restraining order. If you need legal help but don’t have much money, your local domestic violence agency may be able to help you find a lawyer who will work for free or on a sliding scale.
  • Protect your online security as you collect information and prepare. Use a computer at a public library to download information, or use a friend’s computer or cellphone. Your partner might be able to track your planning otherwise.
  • Try to take with you any evidence of abuse or violence if you leave your partner. This might include threatening notes from your partner. It might be copies of police and medical reports. It might include pictures of your injuries or damage to your property.
  • Keep copies of all paper and electronic documents on an external thumb drive. Advocates at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-SAFE (7233), can help you develop your safety plan. The National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence provides a form for developing your own safety plan. You can also find more tips on developing your safety plan. Every person deserves to be safe.

Did we answer your question about physical abuse?

For more information about physical abuse, call the OWH Helpline at 1-800-994-9662 or check out the following resources from other organizations:


  1. Smith, S.G., Chen, J., Basile, K.C., Gilbert, L.K., Merrick, M.T., Patel, N., et al. (2017). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010-2012 State Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.