What is Physical Abuse?

Physical Abuse is the non-accidental infliction of physical force that results (or could result) in bodily injury, pain or impairment.

Examples of physical abuse include:

  • Assault;
  • Hitting;
  • Slapping;
  • Pushing;
  • Kicking;
  • Pinching;
  • Shaking;
  • Scalding.

Physical abuse can also include:

  • Misuse of medication;
  • Prolonged exposure to heat or cold;
  • Force feeding;
  • Not giving/withholding adequate food or drink.

Potential indicators of physical abuse include:

  • Unexplained or inappropriately explained injuries;
  • Person exhibiting untypical self-harm;
  • Unexplained cuts or scratches to mouth, lips, gums, eyes or external genitalia;
  • Unexplained bruising to the face, torso, arms, back, buttocks, thighs, in various stages of healing. Collections of bruises that form regular patterns which correspond to the shape of an object or which appear on several areas of the body;
  • Unexplained burns on unlikely areas of the body (e.g. soles of the feet, palms of the hands, back), immersion burns (from scalding in hot water/liquid), rope burns, burns from an electrical appliance;
  • Unexplained or inappropriately explained fractures at various stages of healing to any part of the body;
  • Medical problems that go unattended;
  • Sudden and unexplained urinary and/or faecal incontinence;
  • Evidence of over/under medication;
  • Person flinches at physical contact;
  • Person appears frightened or subdued in the presence of particular people;
  • Person asks not to be hurt;
  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain;
  • Person may repeat what the alleged abuser has said (e.g. ‘Shut up or I’ll hit you’);
  • Reluctance to undress or uncover parts of the body.


Unlawful or inappropriate use of restraint or physical interventions is physical abuse.

In extreme circumstances, unlawful or inappropriate use of restraint may constitute a criminal offence. Someone is using restraint if they use force, or threaten to use force, to make someone do something they are resisting, or where a person’s freedom of movement is restricted, whether they are resisting or not.

Restraint covers a wide range of actions. It includes the use of active or passive means to ensure that the person concerned does something, or does not do something they want to do, for example, the use of key pads to prevent people from going where they want from a closed environment.

Appropriate use of restraint can be justified to prevent harm to a person who lacks capacity as long as it is a proportionate response to the likelihood and seriousness of the harm.

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