Hyaluronic acid (HA) is an important biomacromolecule, which fulfils a number of vital physiological functions (especially in the joint synovial fluid) and also has consumer and pharmaceutical applications. HA solution properties have already been quite thoroughly characterized in response to steady shear flows but are less well understood in highly deforming extensional flows. In this study, flow-induced birefringence measurements are made as a function of the strain rate in planar elongational flow at the stagnation point of a cross-slot device using HA solutions of a range of molecular weights and at dilute concentrations. The results provide macromolecular relaxation times, molecular weight distributions and the extensional viscosities and Trouton ratios of the fluids. The HA relaxation time is found to vary as 1.8, which is consistent with a partially solvated, expanded coil. An intrinsic Trouton ratio is defined, which varies as 2. The measurement of birefringence with strain rate is shown to be highly sensitive to the molecular weight distribution and can resolve subtle changes due to macromolecular degradation and the presence of fracture products. Mechanical degradation experiments in the cross-slots indicate midchain scission of HA macromolecules, strongly suggesting near full extension of the high-molecular weight fraction in the stagnation point extensional flow field. Taken together the results suggest a possible method for analysis of the HA in synovial fluid, and this concept is tested using synovial fluid obtained from porcine tarsal joint. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Biopolymers 101: 287–305, 2014.