BACKGROUND External fixation combined with limited open reduction and internal fixation (EF + LORIF) is a well-accepted and effective method for distal tibia shaft fractures, but it was also related to complications. The objective of this study was to compare external fixation combined with closed reduction and internal fixation (EF + CRIF) with EF + LORIF in the treatment of distal tibia shaft fractures, and explore the benefits and defects of these two techniques. METHODS Fifty-six patients were randomised to operative stabilisation either by an external fixator combined with two closed titanium elastic nails or by external fixation combined with limited open reduction and internal fixation. Pre-operative variables included the patients’ age, sex, the affected side, cause of injury, Tscherne classification of soft tissue injury, fracture pattern, and time from injury to surgery. Peri-operative variables were the operating time and the radiation time. Postoperative variables were wound problems and other complications, union time, time of recovery to work, the functional American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle surgery (AOFAS) score. RESULTS There was no significant difference in the mean operating time (72.6 ± 11.5 vs. 78.5 ± 16.4 min, P = 0.125), the time to union (21.2 ± 11.0 vs. 22.5 ± 12.3 weeks, P = 0.678), the time of recovery to work (25.0 ± 14.5 vs. 26.4 ± 13.6 weeks, P = 0.711), pin track infection (3/28 vs. 4/28, P = 1.000), delayed union (2/28 vs. 3/28, P = 1.000), pain (38.3 ± 1.6 vs. 38.7 ± 1.5, P = 0.339), function (44.4 ± 6.0 vs. 45.0 ± 5.5, P = 0.698), and total AOFAS scores (91.5 ± 7.4 vs. 93.4 ± 6.8, P = 0.322) between the two groups. However, the mean radiation time was longer in the EF + CRIF group than in the EF + LORIF group (2.0 ± 1.2 vs. 0.3 ± 0.1 min, P < 0.01). The EF + CRIF group had no wound complications while the EF + LORIF group had five wound complications, though the difference was not statistically significant (P = 0.052). Acceptable alignment was obtained in 50 patients (22 in EF + CRIF vs. 28 in EF + LORIF, P = 0.023). Two cases with EF + CRIF had a 6 degrees of recurvatum deformity and four had 6–9 degrees of valgus deformity. CONCLUSION Our results indicated that both EF + CRIF and EF + LORIF were reliable methods in treatment of distal tibia shaft fractures. EF + CRIF had fewer wound complications and broader indications while EF + LORIF had lower radiation exposure and better alignment.