Hyperactivity: 32,000 children are being treated at a cost of £13.5million a year
Prescriptions for so-called 'chemical cosh' drugs to treat hyperactive children have risen fourfold since 1997, official figures reveal.
The trend has alarmed experts because Ritalin-type drugs have been linked to sudden deaths in the U.S. and Britain and its use has been under review in this country.
Department of Health figures show GPs wrote a record 384,000 prescriptions for Ritalin and related drugs last year - nearly 7,400 a week.
The total of annual prescriptions has for the first time overtaken the number of youngsters thought to have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Around 32,000 children are being treated at a cost of £13.5million a year. But the National Institute for Clinical Excellence says as many as 366,000 - or 5 per cent - of youngsters under 18 have the disorder.
This will fuel fears that Ritalin is being used as an easy option to sedate healthy children rather than tackling the cause of their hyperactivity through diet and other means.
Concerns about the use of such drugs have mounted in recent years, amid evidence that they cause heart problems, dizziness and insomnia.
They have been blamed for nine deaths in the UK and more than 50 in America in one year. Dozens of youngsters have had serious heart problems.
But a recent study found fish oil is better at treating hyperactivity. Experts say six capsules a day can vastly improve children's behaviour without the side-effects of the drugs.
Liberal Democrat spokesman for children Annette Brooke said: 'Parents will be eager that questions surrounding the safety of drugs like Ritalin are answered as soon as possible.
'The Government owes it to the thousands of concerned parents to be honest about the side-effects of these behaviour-altering drugs.
'More and more children are being prescribed drugs like Ritalin, but we must make sure parents are aware of all the available treatments.
'More GPs should be offering nutritional counselling and behavioural therapy before considering prescribing drugs to these young children.'
Dr Sami Tamimi, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, said: 'This is a concerning trend which I call the McDonaldisation of childhood mental health.
'It is the search for an easy cure that fits in with our fast lifestyles and gives us a quick answer. This has resulted in an increase in the medicalisation of childhood problems.
'The long-term administration of these drugs can cause damage to the heart. There has been an increase in strokes, heart attacks and sudden deaths linked to these drugs.
'There is a worrying gap in our knowledge about what happens when they are given over a long period of time.
'There are already concerns about the psychological effects, but we do not know what will happen to people who have been taking these drugs for 20 or 30 years.
'These drugs have chemical elements which are the equivalent of speed and cocaine. It is time the medical profession held up its hands and said we have got this wrong.'
Swiss firm Novartis, maker of Ritalin - or methylphenidate - says the drug has a long record of being a safe and effective medication.
Health Minister Andy Burnham said discussions are taking place in Europe about whether formal studies are needed into the drug's safety.
He said: 'Since methylphenidate was authorised in the UK, representations regarding its safety have been received from MPs, patients and healthcare professionals.
'Some of these have specifically questioned the need for further research into its long-term safety.
'It is recognised that there is limited information about the longterm efficacy and safety of methylphenidate. Stimulants such as methylphenidate are known potentially to affect weight gain and growth.'
Ritalin is one of at least three drugs recommended by the NHS for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in young people for whom other treatments have failed - despite doctors' fears about side-effects.
But there have been reports of cardiovascular disorders, hallucinations, suicidal thoughts, drowsiness, dizziness, abdominal pain, decreased appetite, nausea and early waking. At least nine deaths have been reported to the UK's Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency since it became available in the early Nineties.
It belongs to a class of drugs called methylphenidates - in the same pharmaceutical family as cocaine and amphetamines.
The stimulant fires up parts of the brain involved in concentration, attention and activity. But it also decreases restlessness, leaving ADHD sufferers calmer and moderating their moods. It is not known how it has these opposite effects on the brain.
But it can also raise blood pressure, which is thought to be responsible for triggering heart problems in some users.
U.S. research found Ritalin may cause lasting changes to the brain. Rats given it as infants felt less pleasure and were more prone to despair as adults.