Background Pain descriptors capture the multidimensional nature of pain and can elucidate underlying pathophysiological mechanisms. This study determined whether the pain descriptors chosen by subjects experiencing acute dental pain associate with the outcomes of two commonly performed dental sensory tests. The goal of the study is to clarify whether pain descriptors are useful in discriminating the underlying biological processes contributing to dental pain. Methods Participants (n = 228) presenting with acute toothache underwent standardized clinical dental sensory testing and described their pain in reference to 22 pain quality descriptors. Univariate and two-way ANOVA determined the relationship between groups defined by cold detection (positive or negative) and percussion hypersensitivity (painful or not) on the affected tooth, and pain descriptor reporting. Results Subjects experiencing painful toothache most frequently reported evoked pain to temperature and chewing, and pain descriptors such as "throbbing" and "aching." They also reported neuropathic pain descriptors such as "tingling" and "electric shock." Subjects who detected a cold stimulus (thermal) on the affected tooth, frequently reported high intensity paroxysmal shooting pain compared to those that did not detect cold. By contrast, patients with percussion (mechanical) hypersensitivity on the affected tooth, reported higher levels of global pain intensity at rest and in function, and reported significantly higher intensity "radiating" and "throbbing" pain, than subjects with non-painful percussion. Conclusions The reporting of neuropathic pain descriptors by subjects experiencing acute toothache was more frequent than expected, suggesting that neuropathic mechanisms could contribute to typical toothache pain. Subjects experiencing toothache with mechanical hypersensitivity experience more intense pain overall. Significance In subjects experiencing acute toothache, specific pain descriptors associate with the responses to routine clinical sensory tests performed on the injured tooth. The frequent reporting of neuropathic pain descriptors suggests that neuropathic mechanisms could create a diagnostic challenge to differentiate toothache from intraoral neuropathic conditions. Persons experiencing toothache with mechanical hypersensitivity experience more intense pain overall, suggesting patients with this clinical feature will have distinct clinical pain management needs.